Melissa

At first we just went grocery shopping, then Athena suggested we all splurge a little and have a really good meal at a restaurant somewhere, some place where Mouses could eat really terribly since the next day he'd have to start really watching himself. Lionel tried to get a nice argument started over where we should go, just to entertain us, and we wound up at some sleazy place with pool tables, because that's where everyone wanted to go secretly. Me and Mouses were the ones who finally admitted it. So we played pool and I had a hamburger, and Mouses was funny because he tried to get everything unhealthy they had in the restaurant on top of his hamburger. He ordered a Polish hot dog to go with it and he cut that up and put it right on the burger and grossed us all out when he tried to eat it.

Athena

Lionel parked the van in the middle of the parking lot, so that it was surrounded by other cars. He didn't like that it was still visible from the road.

Douglas Widgeon

In the middle of pool, they switched the TVs in the place over to CNN, which was reporting three more confirmed attacks by zombies on people. No video footage yet, fortunately, but this time it was the top story. No one had been killed yet that anyone knew of. That entire restaurant was just riveted to the TV. I remember there was just one guy, at one of the corner pool tables, a real skinny guy in a leather jacket, who just kept playing pool as if he was completely unaware that everyone else was glued to the set. He just racked them up and set them down, one after the other. Didn't even look up, I don't think.

Lionel

When they went to a commercial, Mouses said, "You know, leaving my horrifying brush with my last end aside, I could have sworn from the time I woke up that something didn't feel right today."

Since that morning, none of us had seen a single zombie, anywhere. That had only happened on one day before, the day we spent entirely at Longwood Gardens.

Athena

We were a little bit late in meeting Ronnie because we got kind of lost. You'd have really thought that with all our back roads driving, we would have seen some zombies, but no. We kept the radio tuned to the news. For now, they were still going on with regular programming. They started going full-time with the zombie reports just a few hours later, as if it were starting all over again.

Ronnie was sitting on the steps of the arts center with his head down. I guess he felt a little safer now that it was dark. He got in the van and you couldn't help but notice that the left sleeve of his T-shirt was gone. I asked him about it right off, and he said, "Well, you know, it's been a really, really interesting evening."

Ronnie

I wasn't five hundred feet into the woods next to the school when it had happened. There was a very thin trail beaten down and leading back into the heavier brush, where it eventually ended. But standing in the center of the trail, shambling towards me, was an old man in a brown suit, a zombie, walking no faster than they always did, really. I was going to give it a wide berth just because it was my instinct, everyone's instinct, to avoid them, but he was coming right at me, which meant I'd really have to go into the tall grass to avoid him entirely, so I started to run right at him and I was going to elbow him out of the way as I ran, just to get past him as fast as I could and not have to absorb too much detail. I'd already seen that he had a bad gash on his forehead. I swung my elbow when I was within two feet and out of nowhere he lunged at me, lunged at my neck.

I dragged him along for a few feet, and he wasn't letting go, and I had never really felt one like that up close, in direct contact, and I was so repulsed that for a second I didn't even fight back. I pulled on his arms but he held tight, much tighter than a seventy year old man should have been able to hold on. So I bent over at the waist and flipped him, and his back hit the ground first, then the back of his head, and his eyes rolled up into their sockets, but in the same motion his right arm swung around and gripped my ankle. I tried to hop out of his grasp but it didn't work. And then he opened his mouth, with his corneas still invisible, just two white scleras, and went for a bite of my leg. He got nothing but material, and then I knelt down and drove my fist into his face. It didn't slow him much. With my other foot I pinned his neck down, trying to balance myself, and I just pressed and pressed. I thought his hand would never let go of my ankle, but finally it did. His grip loosened just enough so that I could get out. Instead of trying to finish the zombie off I ran for it, and looking back for just a second I saw him getting up again. My foot would have crushed a human's neck, but the zombie kept going. I tore down that path as fast as I could, and I didn't stop running until I had popped out of the woods a half mile later and into the cul-de-sac of a residential neighborhood. So I knocked on the first door I came to, and someone opened up, and I told them that I'd just gotten into a fight with a very persistent, very angry zombie, and that I was in the military and they should either stay in the house and call for the police and the Specimen Control team, or lend me something to go back into the woods and finish that one off. The guy said he'd go next door and get his neighbor's gun, that he would take care of it, and he would keep an eye out. I hoped to God he meant it. I couldn't tell if he did or not. I didn't stick around to answer any questions.

Lionel

A military convoy went past us as we drove along 80, a bigger one than we had seen before, about six or seven trucks. We turned the radio on and the news station was going live now, with all kinds of reports of zombies getting violent. Apparently it was everywhere.

I had a habit of putting the high beams on because they were like deer sometimes, the zombies, crossing the roads indiscriminately. We saw one then, it was walking off the road and into the woods a quarter mile ahead. By the time we got to it, we only saw its back moving into the bushes. Athena was scanning the map and she found a campground a mile away near Lake Linganore, so we checked it out. Mouses went in and got us a cabin for the night, one of those rickety things with some bunk beds and nothing else. He said the woman behind the counter in the reservations hut didn't seem to notice anything out of the ordinary about the night, except that it was really, really slow. The campground was at least half deserted.

Douglas Widgeon

That was a very unsettling feeling, bringing the sleeping bags and such into the cabin, because we were all keeping one eye out for shambling things that might come after us. We didn't see anything. When we got into the cabin we lit all the lanterns and closed the door tight and turned on the radio and hung out on our bunkbeds like the prisoners of war in The Great Escape. There was not a sound around the campground. Our cabin was in a row of twelve, of which two others were occupied. You could only tell that because of the faint glow through the windows.

Ronnie

Here's what happened:

Back in March, when I was stationed at Fort Lomax, a call went out around the base for people to volunteer for an S.T.G. test they had supposedly been working on at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. This was during the time when there was a lot of paranoia growing about S.T.G.; every couple of days the media would splash a story around about someone who had been scratched by a zombie and had then developed some rough symptoms of something or other, chills, nausea, partial paralysis, and two total paralyses, one in Canada, one in Florida. Ten soldiers had been treated for it. At that point it was just penicillin they said they were using. So I volunteered to give a pint of blood for the test, and fill out a bunch of medical history forms, after which I and about twenty other people came back the next day and they gave us what looked like a green Chiclet to swallow. This was the second part of the test. The doctors explained they wanted to see the effects of a certain dye on our system, which would be read through urine output over the course of just a few hours. Apparently they wanted to use this dye on people taking a test for S.T.G., because it would quickly indicate levels of some enzyme in their blood. I think I'm remembering this right. There would supposedly be no side effects, except that our urine was going to be various shades of green. We had to collect it in these cartons that looked like the kind you get Chinese carry-out in. Good times.

Well, I got sort of sick a couple of hours after I took my Chiclet, I had a headache, a little fever, nothing interesting, except they wanted us to report any symptoms whatsoever, so I did. And they wanted me to hang out in the infirmary for a full day so they could check me out. That was a long Tuesday, just laying there, completely alone, while they took my temperature and just sort of monitored me in no threatening way. The fever passed and they thanked me and gave me a two-page receipt that I could turn into Payroll so I could get my $125.

The next Wednesday just before going over to Payroll I scanned the receipt for a place to sign my name, and I noticed that one of the various boxes said "Reason for Stay", and someone had written in the number 49 and the words "S.T.G.-related illness." When I turned it in, the guy at Payroll saw that too, and he said since this receipt had to be put into my medical file after they were done with it, I might want to get that corrected at some point.

A friend of mine who had volunteered for the same test a few days after I did asked me if I had gotten a little ill, because he had too, and so had another guy he knew. And then he asked me if I had enjoyed my "S.T.G.-related illness." He had gotten the same description on his form, written in by hand.

This just stuck in my mind as strange. The people who had come to administer the tests were gone, taken off again for Atlanta, I suppose, who knows. And I also began to think it was weird that they would send someone out to an army base hundreds of miles north to do this, when they could have gotten anyone. Maybe that's the way these things were done, who knows really, but I guess I have a suspicious mind.

I let it go for a month; I figured what the hell do I know. Then one day in April I read an article in the newspaper that attributed sixty-one cases of S.T.G. to the military as a whole. Now if the only way you could contract S.T.G. was a scratch or bite from zombies which I'd never seen scratch or bite anyone, that seemed to indicate that soldiers were totally careless idiots who were walking up to them and saying Howdy and letting them have a go at us. I called the newspaper and tried to get a hold of the reporter, but he was always out, and I didn't leave him a number because I wasn't crazy about the idea of anyone knowing I was talking to the newspaper. Finally I called him one night from the base convenience store, and he told me he'd talked to a Major Blair at Camp Torrez, who had quoted him the figure of sixty-one S.T.G. patients, and when the reporter had asked for a detailed list of where the soldiers served, Blair had his secretary fax him one. I asked him if he still had it, and he asked me to call him back in about twenty minutes. When I did, he gave me a rundown on the various bases that had reported their soldiers coming down with what appeared to be S.T.G. And three cases had come from my base.

Steve Bankard, reporter, the Washington Post

All that Blair's office had given me was a table of raw statistics; he couldn't give me names. I told him I was interested in doing a follow-up piece, a couple of interviews maybe, with men who had contracted S.T.G., but he told me he couldn't reveal the identities of the patients, which seemed like a new policy to me.

Ronnie

He and I talked some about S.T.G., about how many cases had been reported; one hundred and ten, according to that day's New York Times. Like me, he'd never read an interview with anyone who'd ever suffered from S.T.G. I told him my little story about the test, and then he told me to write down a phone number and call a guy named Horace Blankenship, who was serving at Fort Stewart in Georgia.

Corporal Horace Blankenship

At Stewart we had one team of guys go out on a couple of sweeps in the first week of February, and then we were relieved of having to do that; the 102nd took over. But the local paper ran this insane story about how two of our guys had symptoms of S.T.G. from zombie contact, and they even went so far as to name them. They were both my friends, and they had both been in the infirmary for one day each from the flu. Somehow it had gotten reported that they had gotten S.T.G. They called their families and told them it wasn't true, but it ended there. They didn't care what the paper printed. Why should they? But then that story got picked up by the major papers, and their names were in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Ronnie

My name popped up in the Globe and Mail as being a treated S.T.G. victim on the thirteenth of April. I found the article online. A day later, it was in the Baltimore Sun.

Go through as many newspapers as you want, you'll never find a doctor who can say without doubt that any S.T.G. case he treated wasn't caused by something else entirely, not some zombie scratch. As far as the total paralyses went, the ones reported in Canada and Florida, it took me only about a week to figure out that was more an urban legend than anything. There was all this crap about how the names of the victims could not be released, and no doctors' names were ever mentioned, just the names of the hospitals where these people were treated. Watch all the press conferences, you won't see a doctor anywhere talk about what made S.T.G. different or how contact with a zombie could specifically lead to getting infected. There were a couple of investigative stories about how maybe S.T.G. was more of a myth than anything else, including a good one on the NBC Nightly News, but it didn't do much good. The military kept reporting S.T.G. cases, and so did everyone else. The details were another thing entirely, if you could find any at all. What was happening all along, I think, was that as soon as S.T.G. had a name, people would show up at hospitals after getting into a bit of a scrape with a zombie, and they would say, "Oh, I need an anti-S.T.G. shot. I don't want to become one of those poor bastards with S.T.G." And that's all it took to make it real.

Dr. Belinda Sherman

By May the media seemed to be giving a little less credence to S.T.G. They were losing interest because it was just so tough to put a human face on this so-called illness. Where were the victims? Who were they? Who did anyone know who had suffered from it? Then it appeared on the evening news that a Russian girl had apparently died after having been accidentally bitten by a zombie, just accidentally, mind you. A twelve year old girl, said the news stories. I never saw her name printed anywhere. I'm not sure anyone else did either.

Ronnie

I guess I'm an idiot, because I called the Army's Public Affairs office, and told somebody my story, and they of course said they'd look into it. Two days later I was coming out of class and a man came up to me, a Major Smalls, and he and I went back into my empty classroom, and like an idiot I came right out and told him I thought the military seemed to be inventing fake S.T.G. cases, and whatever their reasons for it, I didn't care, but I just wanted my name to be removed from the sick list, I didn't want to be part of something like that. He asked me why I thought they would do that, why they would fake S.T.G. cases. I told him I figured it had to do with preserving their image, which had taken such a beating, what with the Steelton incident, and the public's objection to their presence on the streets. Some of it might have been political, I just didn't know. I asked him if he could explain why so many soldiers who I and Blankenship knew, who couldn't have been infected, were reported just that way, and he blamed it, real smoothly, on reporters doing sloppy work. Yeah, sure, they just invented names, and those names happened to belong to actual soldiers.

This guy, this Major Smalls, looked at me so patronizingly I just began to sweat. He said my fears would be noted, and while they obviously couldn't retract anything that had already been printed, they would do their best to make sure I was "cleared" of anything having to do with S.T.G. Only near the end of our little talk did the little voice inside my head screaming at me to stop finally get through. And I realized what a huge fool I was, how I was messing with my career in talking this way to a total stranger, slandering the military. Subconsciously, I guess you could say I wanted out pretty badly by then. When my parents went missing and I got a furlough, my mind was a total fog. I couldn't go back, I just couldn't. My legs wouldn't carry me. Once I was gone for a day, I just kept going. Finally, I felt I could breathe.

Lionel

But the thing with the S.T.G. was not quite enough to convince him that they were going to come looking for him. What convinced him of that was simpler: when he went AWOL, he was the only soldier who had been at Steelton when that nightmare had gone down, and then gone running. Now, he was free to tell whoever he wanted the whole story. He had made accusations against the army, and then he had run for it. He had trouble written all over him.

We never did get the story of the burnings at Steelton from him. We never asked for it. That was one story we knew we could do without.

Athena

The thing about Ronnie....I just don't know; as he told us that story, he got more and more agitated, and I could see something different in him, like a young boy coming out in him and wanting to blame his troubles on monsters that no one could quite see. I know he was telling us the truth, but how likely were they really to come after him, and how much of it was him trying to convince himself that he wasn't to blame for his mistake of going into the army when he hadn't really understood it? I had no trouble accepting the notion that they had falsified records, invented S.T.G. from almost nothing. But he was taking it further, asking us to believe in a conspiracy against him, in a monolithic entity that suddenly had his personal ruination in mind....all I could think of was, maybe there was a point when Ronnie simply wanted a truth that wasn't quite really there, and he reached for it, because it gave him license to make his past into something they had destroyed, not something he'd lost himself.

Melissa

We didn't see any zombies that night. After Ronnie told us that long story about the S.T.G. test, everyone got kind of quiet and looked out the windows and didn't say anything, so I listened to my Discman and let them get depressed about everything. When I really, really had to go to the bathroom bad Douglas and Lionel walked me over. They told me to look under the stalls before going into one. Wouldn't that have been hilarious, if that's how one got me? Because I went into a stall and it jumped on me, and I got eaten just because I wanted to go have a pee?

Lionel and Douglas didn't really think that was funny. I told them to lighten up.

Mouses

The radio commentators began to repeat themselves, trying to fill up dead air, as it were, and then they gave up and classical music came on. Poor Widgeon, all those good tales from Ronnie and he didn't have his cameraman anymore.

When I laid down to sleep that night, I offered up a little prayer. It had nothing to do with zombies. I basically said, "Okay, body, you tried to kill me once today. What say we just try to get along, at least until I get around to treating you right?" I tried to figure out if I was ready for my heart to conk out in my sleep that very night, if I had settled my affairs. I wished I had said a better goodbye to my cat when I'd given him away to come out riding with Athena and Lionel, but that was about it.

Douglas Widgeon

I had no one to call, really. Funny, how it really sank in that night, that I had no one to call. Even Melissa left a message on her father's cell phone, telling him she was safe and all right, and Mouses left a message at the desk of his mother's nursing home. I doubt Ronnie or Lionel or Mouses or Athena or Melissa were even really aware I was still there, in the cabin, not going home, not worried about my car. It was all right. In a strange way, it felt like something was happening to me for the first time in a very long time.

Richard Rolstein, author, The Dead Walk: A Year in America

Sociologists had to invent a term for what America experienced when the dead first rose and essentially harmed no one, posed no direct threat. The term was image shock, and is meant to mean the immense effects of seeing something that damages the mind and the heart, even if it cannot conceivably cause one injury or death, now or at any time in the future. Hand in hand with that term was system collapse, the necessity of an individual to suddenly accept the truth of a phenomenon which, logically, simply cannot be real. There was a third term sociologists began to use when the zombies began to get up again and actively attack in May, a term that doesn't sound quite so esoteric, scientific. It was brown fog, the sense of despair, helplessness, and abandonment an individual suffers in the first days when already nightmarish situation unexpectedly becomes far, far worse.

Athena

Lionel and I were the first ones to wake up the next morning. I'd come awake in the middle of the night, actually about 4:30, and I saw Ronnie still sitting and looking out the window. He slept in, like everyone else. Lionel and I crept out of the cabin and walked down to the reservations hut, where there was a television set that hadn't been on the night before, but we figured we could ask the woman there to flip it on for us.

The woman was standing out in front of the building, and there were four or five people there too, in a circle around a dead body in the grass. They'd been waiting for a Specimen Control van to show up for an hour and a half, but none had come. One of the campers, who had been sleeping on the other side of the campground from us, had a zombie stumble right over his little one-man tent, collapsing it right on him. And then the zombie had pawed against the tent until the man had scrambled out, and the zombie went after him. The man, really just a kid from the university nearby, James I think he said his name was, had taken a rock and bashed him over the head, and that had put him down. He'd dragged the zombie all the way to the front office. He was terrified, he claimed the zombie hadn't gone down easy, and had been incredibly aggressive.

The zombie's head was at a bizarre angle, almost a ninety degree angle to its body. I guess the force of the blow did that. For some reason the kid was still holding the rock in his hand. He'd dragged the zombie there, still holding it, and he wasn't letting it go.

Lionel still wanted to see what the TV said, but I went back to the cabin instead.


Lionel,

No sleep for me tonight, I'm afraid. I'm not terribly worried about zombies or my own defective heart; it's just the usual insomnia of an old bastard trying to figure things out for himself. Strange how while I seem to need less and less sleep as the years go on, I have less and less to do in those extra hours. Thank God I've only read about twenty percent of Earth's entire collection of books, and still have so many more to go.

I think the best thing for me to do now is step off this cruise ship and head back to Porch Lane, if not right away, then maybe first to my mother's nursing home to check in on her. I haven't seen her for almost three months. That's a pretty sorry state of affairs, no question about it. The money you and Athena save on gas now that I won't be weighing down the van should bring in enough to buy you a nice dinner for two somewhere when this has all blown over.

If it happens that I am not around when things get back to normal—if they ever do—it doesn't necessarily mean I've gone to my last reward, or they've thrown me into an old age home myself. It might mean that I've gone off on my own little trip, something not quite as ambitious as yours has been, but I hope still educational all the same. I've been thinking about this for the past couple of nights. I'm interested in seeing what a sixty-one year old man can absorb from his country on the road when things are at their strangest. I have no intention of writing a book about it, thank God, but all of my learning in the past ten years has come from reading the exploits of other people, and perhaps this little stroke of mine was as good a signal as any that I need to squeeze in just a bit more first-hand research before I stop moving altogether.

It's more than that, even. It's time to be alone again, truly alone, which is something I haven't experienced in almost forty years. I've been surrounded by colleagues and friends and a couple of ex-wives for so long now, I've forgotten what it's like to take everything in on my own terms absolutely, to see every sight and hear every sound unfiltered. Who knows what I might come to think if I'm left completely to myself for several months, or a year maybe, thinking of the entire country as a blank chalkboard.

I have to do this now, I believe, because I can't quite escape Athena's sentiment that to grow old alone is the worst curse anyone can endure, and this feels like the last time I'll be able to stand by myself without fearing that curse. Another couple of years and it'll be too late; I'll be too afraid to go solo. I can already feel that inside myself, that aching to cling to the people I know so I won't be abandoned in my little house. The worst part of this day was when the nurse left me alone in the examination room for just forty-five seconds, and I had a glimpse of what it might be like if no one, not even you and Athena, were outside waiting for news of what was wrong with me. It was terrifying. So I'll roam now, and I'll stop when I get scared, which may be sooner than I think. What would be even scarier is if I get out there and find no one really misses me.

Every instinct I have tells me that it's time for you to go home now, too, Lionel, not because you've seen all there is to see—in fact, I'll bet the next couple of months would be incredibly memorable if you were able to "stay out in the cold" somehow—but because you'd be risking too much by going on. Melissa, Ronnie, and I have gotten much out of our little vacation from reality, but I'm afraid Athena really hasn't. She never needed any escape from anything; it was all a gift to you, her coming along, as you probably know. She knew you felt you needed something like this, something that could make you feel like you were finally in control, our leader, so to speak, and she would be willing to follow you even a little bit further down this path. How much further is the question. I wouldn't want to see you damage the best thing you have going in your life.

I remember when I returned to the states after going to Vietnam in 1969 for the university, what it felt like to be immersed in chaos for six months and then, after my flight home touched down at Los Angeles airport, to sit in my car in the parking lot for an hour before driving back to my apartment, with all that silence and routine waiting for me. I felt depressed for almost a year and a half, because nothing on this side of the world could compare to the grisly drama and the ugly electricity that watching a war up close generated. Now I see you carried away on that same current, living a life that's become weirdly charmed because the country is so up in the air, riding along in the van with no direction, no forward or backward, and not knowing what's coming next. I know you think that your life was too quiet before this, too cluttered with dead end jobs and days of sameness and of watching Athena become more and more fulfilled as an artist and a human being, maybe to the point where you felt like you had fallen far behind her. As long as you're roaming the purple mountain majesties, you'll feel like an adventurer. What I saw of war was revolting and painful and ugly, but it was thrilling in a dark way, and so is this, of course, and I completely understand what it's like for you, to feel such energy and vitality during the day and go to sleep with great guilt that it's finally found you only because of the dawning of such horror.

So you'll go back to Porch Lane, I hope, and maybe you'll have to wait tables at another restaurant, or work with the textbooks again at the campus for less money than any adult should make, and feel empty inside too many days of the week, and still remain very much lost as to what your life should be. The faster you get back there, though, the better, because that's where Athena is, and as long as you have her, your fight to understand yourself will be far less brutal than it could be. She's extraordinary, Lionel, which on the one hand you know very well but which on the other hand you've lost sight of because you've become so spoiled by having this gift for so long. She'll wait for you to catch up to her, she really will. She would wait for years, which is incredibly rare, and she won't yearn for New York or another degree or a real marriage or children, because her patience is seemingly infinite, but to test that patience would be the act of a damned fool. For what it's worth (and I know that the idea of Everett Mouses talking about the human heart is fairly ridiculous), I've always believed people have to make a life entirely for themselves before they can be happy with anyone else—unless they happen to come across someone who is capable of giving freely without resentment or loss, and that person is Athena. It just might be no one else for you. She knew you were confused this morning about where the hospital was, and that for a second you were really panicked as you looked in both directions, foot on the brake, your mind racing, but she never let on. She waited to see if she absolutely had to say something, and then you made the right guess. With her, you've won a lottery whose odds brutalize almost everyone. Never make the mistake of thinking you're so special that you could win it twice.

I'm going to do something a little crazy now and leave this note in your shoe, and then walk right on out of this cabin and down the road. I haven't had an adventure of my own in so long that I want to jump right into it, and that means feeling what it's like to be totally irrational, to splash some very cold water in my face, become rudderless, throw away my compass. There are few things quite as odd and delirious as an old man in tennis shoes walking down a country road and not knowing where he's headed. I hope I get to see you both back on the Lane before too much time goes by, and I hope you keep each other safe from the darkest parts of the coming days, and that you learn much, and steal some simple happinesses where you can. Don't let the beasties scratch or bite or eat you, and just as importantly, don't let them come between you. I'm dashing off a quick letter of Athena's own, fifty words or so to say so long for now, and this one we can keep just between us.

God help us for being so glad we're around for this, right? It's all right; if he actually exists, he knows what we're going through, and he's already shown that he has the most whopping sense of humor we could have hoped for.

Your bespectacled friend,

Mouses


Douglas Widgeon

The radio and TV kicked into overdrive with their twenty-four hour coverage then, and it lasted something like four days. Zombies which had never been disposed of were waking up somehow, and new ones were everywhere. There had been three confirmed deaths already, which probably meant that there was either just one or maybe ten, but either way, it was obvious from watching the faces of these people as they told their stories on CNN that no one was making this stuff up. The zombies were definitely aggressive, and while there was no cannibalism going on that anyone could tell, they would have a go at anything from dogs to children. Anything moving really, even cars. There was a great deal of videotape, people who had put their camcorders away two months after the first crisis began were scrambling now to get them out again. A lot of it showed the military response to the situation, which of course was immediate and brutal. There was a clip one night I remember which showed a zombie on fire from head to toe, and a group of soldiers surrounding it. It wasn't clear how the zombie had gotten on fire, not at all; they weren't using flamethrowers or anything that I knew of. The image reminded me of a child's game of Marco Polo. The zombie was staggering around and the soldiers would hop two or three steps back if it happened to wander over to them. No one wanted to be tagged.

Melissa

We were all in the van, except Mouses, and I think Lionel was headed toward the highway, but then he turned off, and no one said anything, but it was sort of like we were just going to be spinning our wheels and we should have talked about where to go next before we left the cabin. So we wound up back at the elementary school. Lionel just said, "This should be pretty safe for a bit," so there we were bringing our stuff back in. It was bad, it felt embarrassing sort of, to be back there. We weren't getting ahead at all, we were just completely stopped. We had to keep listening to the radio to figure out what to do.

Athena

On the way we wanted to stop somewhere just for a second to get some batteries for the radio. So we pulled off the road into a place called Smokey's Superette. Just as we were walking in, the owner of the place came walking out, locking the place up. He said Sorry, I'm headed home. He was going to get his wife and his dog and go to Italy, literally. His brother lived there. We said to him, Well, there's zombies there too, you know, and he said, Yeah, but at least over there I won't have to hear about it on TV so damn much.

He did something nice for us. He went back into the store when we told him we were there for batteries and he went up to the rack and he grabbed six or seven packs and just gave them to us. Batteries enough to last for months. When I crammed them into the glove compartment of the van, that was actually another bad moment. All those batteries, so we could listen to the updates on the radio forever and ever and ever.

Douglas Widgeon

There was one other stop in there that I remember. Lionel wanted to buy a new notebook, he had run out of room in the one he carried everywhere, and which he wouldn't open in front of anyone. I asked Mouses about it once, and even Mouses didn't know what the deal with it was. Lionel said he wrote letters to his sister in it and kept careful track of all our heights and weights. He laughed it off, but he definitely had a secret.

Lionel

Ronnie and I figured that one thing to do to begin with when we settled in again at the school was check the place out from top to bottom, just to make absolutely sure there was nothing in there that might come at us instead of just drifting on by. We were walking down the hallway of the lower grades wing and Ronnie said to me, "Maybe we need something with us." He was talking about a weapon. I got the softball bat out of the van and gave it to him, and there was really nothing else suitable. So I went into room 110, where the others were hanging out, and I took a teacher's pointer off the chalkboard ledge and brandished that.

Melissa

That thing Lionel took with him was skinnier than a pool stick, and not sharp, and about three feet long. I have no idea what he thought he was going to be able to accomplish with that. He swished it through the air at us real threateningly and he said, "Every generation needs a hero. I tell you, ladies, I am that man!"

Ronnie

In room 125, which was locked, which we got into only after we found a master ring of keys in the principal's office, there was a cat feeding three kittens. The cat was just lying right in the middle of the floor and the kittens were noshing. She looked up at us, really perplexed, like "What the hell are you people doing here? You don't have enough to do?" So we looked around the room trying to figure out how the cat had gotten in there. The windows were all closed. The ventilation shaft up near the ceiling had no grille on it, so that was how she did it. I got up on a desk and peered in there, having this vision of a zombie crawling through the shaft. But the thing was so tiny, that cat must have actually squeezed her way into the room. We left the door open for her so she could prowl around at night. We didn't tell Melissa about the cat because she'd want us to go out and get some food for it, no doubt. Chances were it lived in the neighborhood somewhere. All the time we were in that room, it glared at us. It wasn't just a mother cat in a bad mood in the middle of feeding time. I swear, it was a total condemning of everything humans were.

Lionel

The two kindergarten rooms were sort of funny, because their ceilings were actually lower than in the other rooms, as if they'd figured everyone in here was really small, so why not bring the roof down a bit. The first room had been the possession of someone named Mrs. Kirchner, and it was a little bit freaky because the bulletin board on the wall opposite the chalkboard was full of letters written on construction paper from the students to her, some of them really primitive ones because the kids could barely write at all—they were all from different grades, like the whole school had been in on this project—and they all said Get Well Soon or We Miss You, one said Don't Be Sad Because You're So Sick, and in the middle of them all was a thumbtacked Polaroid of this woman, and she was obviously in the hospital, and she looked absolutely terrible. White as a sheet, trying to smile, it was an awful photograph. That woman was not well at all.

On the chalkboard someone had written a few sentences. And there was no way of knowing when they had done it. It might have been two hours before for all I knew. Because the windows were all closed and the door had been locked, I assumed it was months ago. The handwriting was male, that much I think I'm sure of, and as neat as could be. It was a poem. On one wall you had the student letters to this dying woman, and on the chalkboard opposite it you had this poem. Beside the poem, they'd drawn a zombie in eight or nine quick slashes. Its arms were reaching out at whoever was looking at it.

LAZARUS STUMBLED INTO A BAR
SAID "GIVE ME THREE SHOTS OF WHISKEY, FOR I HAVE COME FAR!
THE OTHER SIDE'S MYSTERIES STILL SWIRL IN MY EYES;
THE PARTY REALLY STARTS WHEN A MAN UPS AND DIES.
GATHER 'ROUND TO LEARN OF THE SIGHTS I HAVE SEEN
AND POUR ENOUGH JACK TO MAKE MY TOOTSIES TURN GREEN!"
THE BARTENDER NODDED AND SMILED AND SAID
'WE'RE ALL SURE IMPRESSED YOU'VE COME BACK FROM THE DEAD,
BUT SAVE THOSE DAMN VISIONS FOR SOME CHEERIER DAY—
YOU'RE JUST GONNA SCARE MY PATRONS AWAY.
I THINK FROM YOUR FACE, YOUR VOICE AND THAT SMELL
ALL YOU CAN TEACH US IS, IT STILL SUCKS IN HELL.'


Ronnie

I had the strangest feeling when Lionel and I went back to put the keys in the office again. I was watching the way the light was coming through the windows and I was feeling so weird. It was late afternoon by then, and the sun was trying to peek out from behind all these really creepy storm clouds, so all of these nearly black clouds had rings of bright light around them, and it gave a freaky look to the sky.

We opened the door to the principal's office and it was the shock of my life, I mean it, even more than when that zombie attacked me in the woods, because it was like I had just walked right into a dream. The guy behind the desk in the office was just sitting there in a suit and looking through some papers, like it was the middle of a school day and he had reports to file, and suddenly two zombie hunters had stumbled in from another world, like two dimensions had gotten accidentally brushed together, and we were never supposed to have seen each other.

Lionel

I recognized him at once, because of course this was the guy from the photos in the office, Principal Polley, the guy who had all his awards festooned around the office. He had absolutely no expression on his face; there was no shock, no anger, no nothing. He was totally empty. He looked like someone who had seen too much in Korea or Vietnam. His hair was perfectly neat, and he had this dark blue suit on. And he wasn't saying anything. He said absolutely nothing, so I had to speak, I told him we were really sorry, that we had come across this school and had thought it was empty, and we were going to leave soon, we had just stopped for a little while.

Nothing. No response, except for a little nod he made at us. He was holding these papers in his hands and he set them down, and then he got up out of his chair very slowly. Ronnie and I didn't know what else to say. I was scared, truly scared, because I thought this guy was nuts. Why wasn't he saying anything?

Ronnie

He got to his feet and he came around the desk, moving kind of like an old man. I asked him if he was okay, and he did that little half-nod again, but it was kind of a delayed reaction, like he was hearing me a few seconds after I spoke. And he moved right past Lionel, and he went out the door and started walking down the hallway like he was seventy years old instead of just forty-five or so. He had a very old walk. We had no idea what to say or do. We were baffled.

Lionel

I said something like, "Please stay," something really useless, but the exit doors were right there, and he pushed on the metal bar and went out the door. There was no car out there or anything. Ronnie and I went up and stood in the doorway, half inside and half outside, and we watched him go.

He just walked across the parking lot, and across the road. He didn't look left or right to see if any cars were coming. We were hypnotized, watching him. He went onto the jogging path that went all the way to the middle of town, and he went down it and out of sight. Weird, as soon as he disappeared from our field of vision we heard a thunderclap, but there was no rain that came afterward.

Ronnie

I swear, the second he was gone, there was this thunder, but it never amounted to anything. I looked at Lionel and he looked at me, and he said, "Hey Ronnie, is it possible, just remotely possible, that we just talked to a goddamned zombie?" I said No, that couldn't be, he wasn't dead, you could tell a zombie instantly. And he'd nodded at us, and he was reading some papers, and he walked fairly normally, even if it was like he'd had arthritis and too much to drink. He wasn't a zombie. There's no way to prove it, but that would have been too bizarre for me to even think about, so I didn't.

Lionel

And I thought, Jesus Christ, is someone watching us from above, and methodically testing the endurance of our imagination? Is that what this is all about? Are our brains just in a dish in some lab somewhere, getting fed the craziest impulses the scientists can think of, just so they can giggle and write down the results and deliver a paper on it someday? What was next?

We locked the place very securely that night. No more visitors, not even cats, that was absolutely it.

....This letter shall end, dear sister, with one last description of an occurrence which simply could not have really taken place, and yet it did. I saw my stalker zombie one more time. It was that very same evening, and my hand is starting to hurt too much to go into the details, so let's just say that I stayed up late and everyone else was asleep and I did the unforgivable and snuck one of Ronnie's cigarettes from his bag in the van and sat out on the playground for fifteen minutes, puffing away, because I allow myself one cigarette every six months or so, and no, it's never more than that. And my zombie in the housedress was in the field that sloped away from the playground, wandering from east to west, never looking at me. How could I tell it was her, when it was two o'clock in the morning and I was so far away? Well, there was a full moon out, and she had a certain walk, and blah blah blah, but what it comes down to was that I just knew. Call me crazy, that's fine; I think I've been crazy for almost four months now.

You know what? She did look at me, just once. I couldn't see her face, but I swear I saw her head turn in my direction, and then she was out of sight again, gone.

I assume the postal system is still up and running and they've just added "nor the walking dead" to that little rhyme of theirs, so this letter should get to you in a couple of days. Say hi to the husband and the totniks, stay indoors for a while, and write me back at Porch Lane for when I get back there eventually, and tell me what I should call the book I'm going to list all these stories in. It'll have to be a very original name, mind you—the world is going to be full of books just like this one in no time at all.

I'll call you soon.

Love, Lionel


From Song of the Living Dead, a documentary by Douglas Widgeon, public television air date December 14, 2006, KTCA, Minnesota:

Scene 53, 1:23:15:00

355. EXT. MELISSA LANSFORD SITTING ON PUBLIC BEACH, ALONE

NARRATOR: On May 6, Melissa's friend Lionel drove her to a Denny's restaurant in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where her father would pick her up and take her home. She had been on the road with her friends for more than three weeks, but they had decided finally that it was too complicated, and perhaps too dangerous, to keep her with them any longer. When they arrived at the restaurant, Melissa's father had not yet arrived, so they sat in the van for a half hour, and waited.

MELISSA'S VOICE-OVER: We hadn't said much on the drive up there, it was two hours and we just listened to the news, I guess. When we got there we were looking at this guy who was across the parking lot, sitting on the little step in front of Denny's, which was closed. This guy was just sitting there with his head down, almost like he was asleep, but he had one arm stretched out and he was petting this dog who was sitting beside him, petting him with one arm over and over and over again, in exactly the same pattern, but never looking up. All we saw was the top of his head. He might have been drunk. The dog was pretty cheerful, it was a German shepherd. The guy did this for ten straight minutes, like a robot. Finally the dog wandered away from him, and went off into the woods. I guess the dog wasn't even his, because he never looked up.

We were watching that and Lionel got a real serious look on his face, and he talked to me differently then, and it really was like he was trying to be an adult for me. All this time he hadn't bothered with all that, that was more Athena's job, he supposed. But now, she wasn't around. She'd already hugged me goodbye and everything.

356. INT. MELISSA WALKING THROUGH THE EMPTY HALLS OF HER HIGH SCHOOL, ALONE

MELISSA'S VOICE-OVER: He said he wanted me to remember that exact moment, the time when I was waiting for my father to come and get me, so I could go with them and be miserable up in the mountains, or even in England. He told me that as soon as I got out of the van, I wouldn't really be seventeen anymore, that I would have aged somehow, just in the past couple of months. By going back with my parents, it would sink into me without me even knowing it, how suddenly I would be more than seventeen, I would be an age that had no number. There's no number for your age now, he said. And I wouldn't ever quite be like other people, almost but not quite. He said there had been something added to me and something else taken away, not just because the dead people all over the world had gotten up and walked, but because I had spent the time since then away from my family and free, and not afraid.

357. INT. MELISSA'S ROOM, CLOSE-UP OF ITEMS AND POSTERS ON WALLS

MELISSA'S VOICE-OVER: He told me he thought that because of the zombies, I might feel angry sometimes and not really understand why. And he said not to let anything make me forget that I was young. Not my parents, not the zombies, not anything. That night he wanted me to turn out the lights when I went to bed and say to myself: I am young, I am young, I am young.

It was like he was trying to teach me everything he'd learned, but it got kind of mixed up in his mind and he couldn't get the words out right. I don't know why, but it made me cry. So I sat there crying, and hoping my father just wouldn't ever come for me, ever.

The thing is, I do want to be like other people. I want to have a nice house and a good job and get married and live in a little neighborhood somewhere, and drive one of those cars no one notices. When I said that to Lionel, it cheered him up a bit. He wanted to hear that I would be normal after all this. So I told him I'd have a bunch of cats, too, and two boring kids, and I'd spend my weekends at Home Depot, and go on vacation in Ocean City. And when people asked me about the zombies, I'd say, "Oh, yeah, way back when, that was a really big deal for a while. It was like September 11 and the Vietnam War. But you know, we got over it."

358. INT. MELISSA'S ROOM AT NIGHT, MELISSA CLIMBING INTO BED, SHUTTING OFF THE LIGHT

MELISSA'S VOICE-OVER: I got him to laugh at me, and forget that I was crying. And eventually my father pulled up. When we drove away, Lionel was still sitting in the van. He promised he wouldn't go anywhere till I was out of sight, because he didn't want it to feel like he and Athena and the rest were leaving me. He wanted it to feel like the other way around. So the van stayed and I went, wherever it was I was going to.


























Last Chapter: The Notebook


























Those zombies in the baseball stadium....I feel bad for 'em sometimes. A couple were looking at me even when they were melting. But then I remember, a zombie, an apple, a person, a typewriter, God hates 'em all equally and the same.

--DeMarko Cline, 37, Charlotte, North Carolina, three days before his suicide in police custody.

















Kenyon, homeless man, Reno, Nevada

WELL, my blueberries, there's nothing you can DO when the french fries come walking again, yes SIR, when the french fries decide to up and be lawnmowers, that is IT. I seen them walking past here just an hour ago, thump thump thump. But you know, it's no ACCIDENT that a french fry will become a lawnmower, if the blueberries are BAD then they by accident cause the TRANSFORMATION. And once TRANSFORMED into the lawnmower STATE, a thing cannot be RECALLED. All you can do is make blueberry rules for the lawnmowers and give them all our land. If you don't give it to them, they'll thump thump thump their lawnmower LEGS all over from Texas to Egypt and take it with anger. There's nothing more TASTY to a lawnmower than a blueberry, so watch your ARMS and your LEGS, young listener, when you go down strolling, teeth are everywhere now, teeth in mouths are everywhere! Those who remember what KING HEROD said to CAIN before he brought that big old boulder down on his head will be SAVED if they can get to a PHONE in time and tell the ANSWER MAN those SAME WORDS: "You're never gonna get AWAY with THIS one, brother, my LORD has WAYS of fixing the score. Next time you turn around, you'll have to feed ten billion LAWNMOWERS walking and chewing the earth, and they're only happy with tender, yummy blueberry BRAINS."

Athena

When Lionel got back that night, Ronnie was already gone. He'd stayed till about noon, and then he'd called a cab, and he talked the dispatcher into sending a cab that would take him all the way to Point of Rocks. There was a commuter train to Washington from there, and he said he'd improvise his way further south, maybe figure out a way to get on a bus, take a chance and show his I.D. Lionel saw that Ronnie had left just from the look on my face. The first thing he said, even before I had a chance to ask him if everything had gone okay with Melissa was, "So when did he leave?"

I had tried to get Ronnie to take some money, but he said he was fine. Which wasn't the truth, of course, but I didn't argue the point. And he sat outside, and waited for his cab. He looked like a kid waiting for an ice cream truck.

You know, after you get out of high school or college, your whole process of making friends becomes so different....your friendships with other people are contingent on all the things that these people have going on in their lives. Jobs, wives, kids. It's all built around a structure they already have in place. But we managed to get away from that for a while; we were people who just knew each other, with no past and no future, and every day was just the next day on the road, eating together and telling the same jokes. Now I'm thirty-three, and there won't be another group like that, ever, I'm sure of it. It just fell in our lap, and before we knew it, it had disappeared. As for a scrapbook—we never kept one.

Douglas Widgeon

He had just tapped lightly on the door to the library, where I was looking through some books. His backpack had been slung over his shoulder, and he said, "Take care, man," and he left without another word. I liked Ronnie. That was the way he did things. He was a big, muscular guy, but he wanted to be invisible. He thought going into the army was going to keep him invisible. It just didn't turn out that way.

Athena

It didn't occur to me till later that we had never given him our address, or our phone number back home. And he was basically homeless, no way to reach him. So maybe we'd never hear from him again.

Douglas Widgeon

After Ronnie left, it was just Athena and I in the school, so she turned on the radio but then she turned it off again immediately after hearing the top story on the news, which was about that man who was attacked and killed inside the movie theater in Miami, supposedly, and she didn't want to hear any more. I was really interested, but she wouldn't have it just then. She rooted around in a cabinet in the smaller of the two first grade classrooms and came out with a Nancy Drew board game, and she said, Okay, let's play this, just for kicks. So we spent a full hour playing the Nancy Drew board game, and Athena was very much into it, so she wouldn't have to think. When it ended and I won, she couldn't very well say Hey, let's play again, because that would really be admitting she didn't want to be left alone, so she took a nap instead.

I smoked just outside the main entrance. As I looked out on the road, I had a mental image of a million zombies walking at us, coming from over the hill. All with their arms stretched out towards us, and nowhere to run to.

Lionel

The radio had told about some pretty gruesome things, no doubt about it, and it made me feel a little sick but also a little better about taking Melissa back to her parents. Four thousand troops had been called out to go on "emergency elimination missions", meaning they were out to destroy whatever was walking around with something less than the tact which they had tried to summon up till now. The routine had become: spot a zombie, clear the area of any living people with five or six guys running forward and keeping them out of the way, and then lay into the zombie with as much ammunition as it took to keep it from twitching. This was not as easy an idea as it sounded, apparently, because where before the zombies had just been content to lope around like vagrants, now they came after people, and there really were more than before, I would have sworn to it immediately. On the drive back from Gettysburg, I'd had to make three detours because the army had temporarily closed down a road, obviously to make a kill. Three detours, that was a lot. That didn't just mean three zombies killed; that was just how many were encountered on a road, for God's sake. And yet I didn't see one myself. I did think that was strange. Luck of the draw, I guess.

Traffic was a killer, too, because a lot of people were getting the hell out of whatever town they were in, just up and leaving. It wasn't so much the threat of zombies coming after them, I think, as it was that everything really felt like it was finally going straight to hell, everything.

They were getting harder to put down, too, the zombies were. That was hearsay, anecdotes reported from person to person and finally winding up on the radio. But it was a hell of a lot of anecdotal evidence, it really was.

Richard Rolstein, author, The Dead Walk: A Year in America

The runs on hardware stores and grocery stores were horrendous when the first zombie crisis struck in January; this time, it progressed to the point of violent looting. In suburbs and respectable neighborhoods, people who waited too long in line, and got too edgy and afraid, just started walking out with things, which started a chain reaction, and so it was a nightmare for merchants. There was a sense that whatever had to be done to arm oneself against the zombies, it had to be done immediately, right now, because God knew what was going to come lurching across the parking lot in the next fifteen minutes.

Speaking on crudely practical matters, the loss of productivity from January to April caused a recession; beginning on May 9, economists began to see signs that a total collapse might occur if the situation were not gotten under control quickly. This led to the president giving the go-ahead to a lightning-quick military response, even more swift than the first time around, which in turn led to some terrible errors in judgement, which led to the killing of two innocent people in New York, which led to a lot of jeeps in the streets and people not really understanding how they were to work their daily lives around something like that. How could you work in an ice cream shop, or do data entry, or run a dental practice, when outside your window an army unit was running by, intent on trapping and killing something that was just wandering down the street? And they just couldn't find them all. There was always one more zombie to be dispatched. No more Specimen Control vans, a lot more bonfires.

One interesting side effect of the second crisis was that the hundreds upon hundreds of legal challenges designed to fight against brutality toward the zombies in their families' interest trickled to almost nothing. It was one thing when a zombified, and essentially harmless, family member was secretly cremated in the woods by a military which was trying to avoid the hassle of identifying any of the undead. It was quite another affair when the zombies were trying to do bodily harm. Even civilians, totally horrified by the awful video they were now seeing on the news, seemed to say: Okay, go ahead, fire at will, and leave none of them recognizable to us.

Athena

It was too late in the evening to head out anywhere, really, or at least that's what we told ourselves. Douglas took the van out and went to the grocery store. When he came back, he told us that he'd had to stand in line for a half an hour. People were just buying anything and everything. They had a couple of policemen hanging around the place in case of trouble, either from the dead or from the living who just didn't feel like paying for their bread and toilet paper. Still no sign of any zombies, though people in line had been talking about seeing a group of four just a mile west of the shopping center. The army hadn't had a chance to come get these, apparently; a little vigilante contingent had done the job. That sort of thing was springing up everywhere. It had been illegal since February, to dispose of one yourself, especially since the Steelton thing, because who knew who you were really killing. But it couldn't be stopped now.

When Douglas was off at the supermarket, Lionel and I laid together in the dark in my sleeping bag. We were very aware of being in this huge building, just us, with the world going nuts outside. We turned out the lantern and just laid there. We didn't say anything, nothing at all, for a long time, and then I asked him where we were going the next morning. He said, "Home, I guess."

Douglas

I think we played cards the rest of the night.

Richard Rolstein

One of the scariest moments a country can face is not when it is about to be attacked, or invaded, or occupied, because that very sense of terror can stir up a strong defense, a reactionary patriotism. "It's us against them." No, something scarier is when the bottom drops out of everything, and no one cares about their home anymore. They just don't care. You can feel it in countries where the government pushes things too far against its own people and the people strike back, destroying not just their leaders but the infrastructure of the land as well. You can feel it when a small nation's economy falls right through the floor, when their money becomes useless. The American people came very close to succumbing to that virus on Z-Day II. The dead walking brought out about a heavy dose of national nihilism, but a temporary one; the dead becoming violent broke the last mental defenses of people who already tended to believe the universe was random and that God had removed himself from the scene long ago. They reacted by staging bizarre parades, by defacing the country with billions of splashes of graffiti, by leaving their jobs in the middle of meetings. Some reacted with violence, terrible violence. As bad as things got, one fact was always sadly true: that the number of people killed by zombies in 2005 was drastically less than the number of people who killed each other in the darkest of all possible reactions to them.

Athena

Lionel wasn't next to me when I woke up. It was about six in the morning. I got up and I found him outside, crouching beside the van. He was just staring off into space. I knew what he was saying, just by his crouching there. He was saying, Just a little bit farther, Athena, just a little bit.

Lionel

But at least we'd go north, back in the direction we'd come from. And we'd roam back on that general path, toward Porch Lane, and we'd just kind of see what happened. Home was north, but north could mean a lot of things too. It could mean we'd sort of veer off and circle around. North could mean Williamsport. North could even mean Ohio.

I just wanted to see what happened, that was all. I was just curious to see what was what.

Galahad, homeless man, Burlington, Iowa

See, you have individual karma, but then you have multiplied karma, and there's two hundred and fifty million people in this country, so when you multiply that much karma, the collective will of the masses is always satisfied. Now you take China or Russia, they have more people, but what do the Chinese and the Russians want? They just want to eat. They just want to be happy. But not America. America wants excitement, America wants roller coasters and Best Picture nominees and breaking news stories, live with so-and-so from such-and-such.

So it's obvious why the moseys are trying to kill people now, it's because of all that karma. America always gets exactly what it wants. If America wants another country, it gets it, if it wants a bad germ to use, it gets it, if it wants more money, it gets it. Every single person here, and that's me and you included, really really wanted the moseys to be more like the ones in the movies, so we all went to sleep one night and the force of our sleeping will rose them back up off the ground again, and now we finally got what we desired. More news flashes, more headlines running across the bottom of the screen, everyone looking up at the TVs in airports, what's next, what's next, let's have some more, oh I think I saw one, let's call the neighbors, let's see if they made a show about it yet, how many people have gotten jumped by the moseys, did you know anyone who did? All it took was just one night of going to sleep and dreaming it bad enough, all it took was the desire, and I'm here to tell you that we Yanks have lust in our hearts like nobody's ever seen.

Douglas

There really were an awful lot of disturbances on the roads, and we traveled the back routes all the way. There were twice as many cars on those country roads as normal, and twice we were stopped dead for about twenty minutes, and when we finally got caught up we saw that what caused the delay was mostly rubbernecking. Whenever anyone passed a military convoy or a group of soldiers, they just had to slow down, or even pull over, to see what was going on. And then sometimes someone would report a zombie, or a group of zombies, in the area, and the army would come and shoo everyone away from the scene until it was taken care of. The killing of the zombie probably took all of three minutes, but what was happening—and I don't know this first-hand, so it might be my prejudice—was that the army didn't want anyone to see how the zombies were being dispatched, so they would close the road for fifteen minutes and then let people move on again. One thing was for sure, and that was that people were seriously on the go, loaded up with suitcases and bike racks, as if the whole country were going to the beach for the weekend. There was a gigantic tidal movement to rural areas. Anyone who had a friend living in the middle of nowhere wanted a few nights' stay. So even the back roads were sometimes clogged.

We had all gotten simultaneously tired of listening to the radio, so we listened to not much of anything. I had a chance to get out of the van and go right home, since we passed within two miles of my house, but I was now officially calling this trip "research" for the documentary. Which was a laugh, since I had no camera, no audio equipment. I think I was really more interested in where the hell Lionel thought we could possibly go and enjoy ourselves. It didn't seem possible anymore.

Athena

Our diet was pretty damn awful that day, because we couldn't find one roadside stand that was open to sell us vegetables, which was a really ominous sign. I didn't see how anything could stop a farmer from needing to sell his crops, but this apparently had. We even went past the stand we'd hit on the way down, where that girl had told us the story about the Specimen Control guys staying overnight. No one was there. Very strange. So we ate hot dogs we got from a gas station, and the McDonald's on 550 was still open and kind of busy, so I made Lionel eat a salad, and Douglas ordered the same thing so as not to torture him. They were not happy.

We finally saw a zombie. 550 was mostly just a bunch of open fields, one after another, and in one of them these two guys were walking backwards, evading a zombie who was walking after them. The guys weren't frightened, obviously. They had nothing to defend themselves with, but the zombie wasn't moving too fast. They just seemed interested in its aggression. We rolled by them very fast and didn't stick around for the outcome.

Douglas

There was this little place, Sazler's Hardware, on the side of 109, and it was open, and Lionel pulled in. He said, "We should probably, just in case, have a little something to knock one of the bastards over if we get surprised. Right?" Athena stayed in the van and we went shopping. She was pretty disturbed by the idea.

There was a really, really old guy sitting right in front of the store with a pair of binoculars. We immediately knew what he was doing. Why he felt the need to use binoculars, we weren't sure. It wasn't like a U-Boat fleet was going to appear on the horizon. Anything he saw out there, he was going to have more than enough time to haul himself back into the store and tell the proprietor to get ready for a visitor or two. Or three.

The owner of the store had all the things anyone could possibly need right up front. He'd had a run on it all: crowbars, axes, little cans of mace (only women bought that stuff, he said), a sledgehammer or two. All selling at full price, of course. I guess all the stuff would be marked down after zombie season was over.

Roddy O'Dea, owner, Sazler's Hardware

I had people come in looking for nail guns. They wanted to go after 'em with nail guns, for Christ's sake. And blow torches, I sold those out. I was going to tell those people that the zombies weren't scared of fire. No one knew why, that was just how it was. You lit up a blowtorch, they just kept coming. Then one guy just wanted a pool skimmer. He figured if a zombie comes at him, he'll just plop the net over the head and use the pole to just sort of back him up, then run for it. Jesus. You're not doing anyone a favor by trying to be subtle like that. Be a man.

Douglas

We bought three crowbars. We dropped them in the back of the van, and just went on our way. The awkward part was that Lionel had to run out to the van to get some money from Athena, he didn't have enough cash and he wouldn't let me pay for the stuff for some reason. As if we were at the grocery store and he was going to just push my tomatoes or my cereal into his pile, to do me a favor. So he and Athena bought me my crowbar. The owner asked us if we wanted a handwritten receipt, because the printer inside the register was out of ribbon. And Lionel said, "Oh, does that mean we can return these when we're done with them?" The guy didn't really get the joke, he just told Lionel what the return policy was. Maybe we could use the receipt to write the crowbars off on our taxes.

That was one memorable feeling, holding that thing in my hands. It was utterly ridiculous, but boy, did I feel ready to use it. It was an instant burst of cheap testosterone. Come and get me, that's what I thought. I must have been going out of my mind.

Reynolds Gunthem, author, The Expanding Flag

At about midnight on May 5, or Z-Day II Plus Two, the U.S. sent about two hundred troops from the 103rd infantry out from Cyankia and across the Rwandan border. They got across secretly and without incident, but the 99th got into a skirmish with a restless border patrol they had not been expecting, and there was a firefight. The Rwandans got instant support from soldiers who had been waiting in the hills for weeks for an American incursion. The U.S. had not even suspected they were there. It was not believed that the Rwandans would have any idea we would try to cross into their country.

Statistics are lied about and statistics themselves lie, but at least thirty men of the 99th were killed in the attempted incursion. Somehow, Hutu intelligence had been far better than American intelligence, mostly because the Rwandans had gotten so suspicious since the fall, or removal, of Boltu Voss in Uganda. They must have simply thought they were next.

The 103rd stopped in the forest and awaited word from the 99th, and the word was so awful that they didn't know what to do next. They had expected that a border patrol might take out two or three men, not thirty. The 103rd did not know what it might be up against if they crossed the Birunga Forest. If their commanders had not known of the reinforcements on the border, God knows what else they didn't know about.

So the incursion was called off, very suddenly. The decision was made that if the troops pulled out fast enough, the debacle of the 99th might be explained somehow. You see, it had been the Americans' intent all along to go into Rwanda, to have troops ready to be reinforced for a rush on Kidaho, but not until day eight or nine of the second zombie crisis did we want anyone to know we were in there. If the world knew we had sent troops in so quickly, it would seem too obvious that this was a pre-emptive incursion, and had nothing to do with another African regime's "sudden instability" due to a new zombie crisis. So the plan had been to set themselves up and then wait for the go-ahead to strike.

But the 103rd was surrounded. The Hutus swarmed over them from the east and the south, and there was nowhere to run but deeper into the forest. The firefight started around five in the morning and lasted about two hours. Three hours later or so, the news was everywhere: At least forty American soldiers killed where there should have been no American soldiers at all, a covert operation to begin the displacement of the regime in Rwanda revealed too fast, too soon, and no excuse could be made for it. These were not even Special Forces troops. These were regular infantry.

There was unanimous condemnation from Russia, France, Germany, Japan, China, and Spain. England tried to make as little comment as possible, but some very cutting words by the Prime Minister on the floor of Parliament made it pretty clear how offended they were as well.

The incident was in the news here in the U.S. for about three days, and then it was mostly gone. Polls showed that about fifteen percent of Americans had a strong disapproval of the action. Fifty percent said they didn't know enough about it to form an opinion.

Captain Lawrence Largent, 103rd infantry, United States Army

At the very end, we were running through the woods, just getting west as fast as possible so the Hutus couldn't cut us off. We did not wait for the choppers. I had about seven men who followed me. Visibility was terrible, there was a full moon but the trees cut out all the light, so we couldn't move that fast. The 95th almost cut us down coming the other way. They had been radioed that we were coming, but they didn't expect us to be scattered so widely, and moving so hectically. They thought for a minute they were being ambushed. When we got into the clear, the jeeps were loaded up and we got back to the border. We were ready for a firefight there, but the patrols had gone into the woods to find us, trap us. We hadn't seen them. We only figured out a week later that as we had been running through the woods west, they were going east, and we missed them by about a hundred yards. If it hadn't been for the noise we made as we ran, we might have been able to hear their footsteps, and vice versa.

We stayed south of Kidaho for two days while things went to hell, while they were searching for a way to explain it all. And Major Douls was insistent that we be able to go back and get our dead out of there. But the Rwandans weren't going to let us in, no way that was going to happen. So they were all left behind, all the killed.

Still, we were made to wait another few days, with nothing happening. It was bizarre. We were all wondering, why don't we just get the hell out of here, since this was such a total disaster? What were we waiting for?

They were trying to make some kind of deal with the Rwandans. They'd figured that of the hundred and one men we'd lost, probably seventy had gotten up again, and started to walk. Maybe they would come back this way. At least some of them certainly would. It was a six mile walk. They didn't want the Hutus to gun them down. They wanted the Rwandans to let them pass, so we could do it, and return those bodies home.

But they didn't go for it. We didn't have a damn thing they wanted, and they wouldn't trust us anyway. The ones who had wiped out the 99th went on a hunt, and most of our guys who had been killed were never seen again. You hear these stories about how the hills are full of gorillas—not guerillas, but literally gorillas—and the Hutus would go on the radio over there and on the national station they would say things like, "The Americans have made good meals for our friends in the Virunga Mountains."

It was up to Major Douls to write the letters home. I have no clue what he could have said.

Athena

Around about six on the day we left the school for good, after driving northeast for three hours kind of stop and go, Douglas mentioned the studios. The studios where WRTH used to videotape their programming were scheduled to be torn down, and it was basically just two big warehouses sitting in the hills outside York. Douglas thought no one had used them for going on two months, and thought it would be a perfect place to crash for the night if we wanted. They'd taken down the fencing around the studios and hauled them off to the new ones in the city, so it wouldn't be much of a problem getting in, and he was almost certain not a soul would be there or within a mile of the place. The only problem might be that we'd have to break into the studio buildings themselves, and as soon as Lionel heard that, of course, he said, "Yes, let's go there."

Douglas

I'd been there two or three times, doing some editing work. To get there, you just drove through a little unattended gate and down a long dirt road. It was public television, so there was no ritz to it, no secrecy or security. RTH had been on the verge of selling the property outright to the golf course adjacent to it, they were going to bulldoze the trees between the course and the studios and add some holes or something, I don't know. But the new studios were already up and running in the city, and it was just a matter of time before the old ones were torn down. My old friend, Gaylen Ross, who did some documentary stuff there sometimes, asked me a month before if I wanted anything from there. They didn't know what to do with some of the smaller props. So for my birthday she had taken seventy fake old-looking books they'd used for set dressing in the past and given them to me. They looked great, and they were totally hollow, and in my living room at home there they all were, in a nice wooden bookcase, and anyone who ever came over thought I was the most well-read dude they'd ever met.

Athena

We got there at seven. The gate was unlocked, and it didn't seem like anyone else was around. There were no cars in the little dirt lot. I just had a lousy feeling about the place. There were no signs, no anything. I said to Lionel, "Come on, let's go to a motel." He said, "Yeah, you're right, probably, but let's check it out, maybe we'll change our mind." And then he gave me a crowbar, and he gave Douglas his, and we went in with protection.

Douglas

The place had no windows, not one, because of course that would have messed with the lighting on the sets, so we had to jimmy one of the doors. That took about eight seconds. Lionel put his crowbar into the jamb and he pretty much popped the whole knob out without exerting a whole lot of effort. Whoops.

There were some light switches right next to our heads when we went in, and luckily about half of them still worked, so we could see everything, even though it was a little bit dim, since the lights were set about thirty feet above us. Most everything from the last few tapings they'd done was till there. RTH really had no money at all, so there weren't even any walls between the sets. They'd tape a segment of their money show in space C, which was five feet away and not separated at all from space B, where they did a kids' show. It was like a cheap studio apartment blown up to thirty times normal size. You could play hockey in there. The funny thing was that right in front of us was a bedroom set, a period thing, there were props suggesting the turn of the century. There was an old fashioned wrought iron bed with a mattress and covers, and Lionel looked at Athena and said, "Now do you want to go to a motel...?"

Athena

I put my crowbar down on the bed as we looked around. I didn't want to carry it. There was no sense in it, the guys had theirs. Now I think to myself, how short-sighted, how like the kind of woman men make fun of, to do that, to think that nothing really bad could happen to us, because we were special, we were the good guys, everything that was happening was just a big movie screen and we were watching it and not really involved. We made up our own little rules, living in an elementary school here, spending the night in a TV studio there, throwing our money away, passing everything by.

Being in that studio was so perfect, seeing these empty sets and the backdrops that had been painted for imaginary plots. None of it was real. I was glad Melissa wasn't there as soon as we turned on the lights. I didn't want her to want to become an actress, to play with all this illusion stuff, I didn't want her living in a dream world. I thought: This is the last night for this. After tonight, we'll be at Porch Lane, and Lionel will have to deal with it. No more pretending. And if we hopefully see Melissa again, we'll tell her about being at the TV studios, and when her eyes get wide and she gets envious we'll say: It was depressing to be there. The whole place was fake and empty. To them, a zombie was a cardboard cutout you put in a closet till you needed it for the next shot.

Douglas

There was one backdrop that had been painted and I really wanted to know what it had been used for. It was fascinating. Lionel and I were going through a bunch of them, because they were all leaning against one wall, and he would get on one side and I would get on the other and we would push them forward, one by one, just looking at them. The people who drew these things were so good, I wanted to make one of them into an entire wall in my house someday. But the one we found which was so strange and puzzling was a ten by twenty foot slab showing a reddened horizon, and a huge bunch of zombies spread out over it, walking toward the viewer, and in the foreground there was just one boy, looking into the distance and waiting for them to come. He wasn't armed or anything, because obviously this backdrop had been drawn before the zombies had become violent. What he did have in his hands was a violin, and he was playing it, so the effect was, the zombies had been drawn out of the hills and over the horizon by the sound of the boy's playing. Like a fairy tale, almost. It was so big, this thing, they must have been planning a very unusual show or documentary or play or whatever. It wasn't even drawn realistically. It was more of a conceptual thing, like what Athena had told me they'd seen in the art gallery in Buckeystown. Impressive.

Athena

I was just looking around and I happened to see Douglas near the back of the studio, or at least what I thought was the back, but the huge wall there was one of those sliding ones, I guess they closed it when they needed silence on the other side. I misjudged the size of the place, it was far bigger than I had thought. I never asked Douglas why he had suddenly felt the need to open that wall. Lionel just thought the place was too neat, and maybe Douglas figured he wanted to see it all. And I was literally walking over to Lionel to tell him we should leave before it got dark; who knew if we could even find a place close by to stay, it might take a while driving. Lionel had jogged over to help Douglas with the bolt that locked the wall. I was five feet behind Lionel when they started to slide the wall open.

Now I think back on what Douglas had told us about that reality show his acquaintance had been planning, the one about all the zombies on the island, and the story that maybe they had collected some to use. He'd said no one thought they had really gone so far as to do that, but if they had, they would have had to put them someplace, somewhere in the middle of nowhere so no one would get suspicious, or ever find them, until they needed them. I think, What are the odds that the story was true, and that they really said, "Well, we know exactly a place we can use," and when I think the odds are ridiculously slim of any of that transpiring, well, then I think of the chances of the dead returning to life and attacking the living, and my head begins to hurt. If the universe can think of such things to throw at us, human beings are even worse.

They always have been. They always will be.

Douglas

We shoved the wall to the left along its rollers, and it had gotten maybe four feet when the zombies started pouring out at us. When we let go of the wall, it slid another four feet or so, and they all came at us from that eight foot gap. The force of their momentum through the gap pushed it little by little even further left, until by the end, by the time they were all out, the wall was a third of the way open. We still had our crowbars in our hands, Lionel and I did, but when I stumbled backwards and one of the zombies landed on top of me, I looked up right away and saw that Athena did not have hers. And I screamed at her to run, and at the exact moment that word came out of my mouth, it came out of Lionel's too. Maybe we hadn't even set them down for a moment just to open the wall because we were men, and beyond always looking for danger, we crave it on some level, just a little taste of it, and God help us, sometimes it comes, and somehow we're ready.

Lionel

There was no smell that led us to believe the wall hid thirty zombies, fifty maybe; we hadn't heard any shuffling or movement, nothing. When they appeared I went totally numb and my shouting to Athena was just instinct. A zombie was right in front of me but there was one just to my left, too, which was where Athena was standing, so I swung at that one first, a woman, having no conscious thought whatsoever in my brain. I went right for her head and I swung as hard as I could. The sound was like I'd hit a bag of seed or something, and that one went down, and then I swung back at the one right in front of me, and I got him in the neck with the hook part, and something weird happened to his eyes when it went in, his corneas just shot to the right, and then he went down too. Douglas had managed to get on top of the one which had pinned him down and he got up, almost falling over, and he swung his crowbar right down on the thing's head. That was how fast we had become able to do that. It took two seconds, from the time we saw their stupid faces coming at us from the dark to the time we realized we were holding something to defend ourselves with. Then our brains sent us a command and we responded to it, like animals, nothing more. The sight of that zombie's eyes going so flat, the feel of resistance when the hook went into its neck, the sensation of clubbing a person in the head, none of that produced anything in us that stopped us. I had no revulsion. I didn't gasp in terror. That all left me instantaneously. In the blink of an eye. The new things we'd become didn't even know their own names.

Athena hadn't run. The first thing I saw her do was whip her right fist against the side of some zombie's face, viciously hard, knocking it aside. She just started swinging, and she hit me in the shoulder with one of the swings, which I only felt much later when the bruise formed. One of the zombies she hit kept coming at her, and it grabbed her left arm, so I hit it in the back with the crowbar, and at the same time I felt these cold fingers go into my mouth. I spat them out and felt something's arms around my waist, but I had to get that zombie off Athena's arm, because it was opening its mouth and going for her skin. I hit it in the back of the head. Blood flew up and hit Athena in the neck. Then I just started shoving the butt end of the crowbar against the forehead of the one that had me until it slid off me.

Some of them came right at us, some didn't. They came in our general direction but some had no intent, like dumb insects. The most awful part was that for a second or two I couldn't see Athena at all because we were literally surrounded. I kept screaming her name and she kept screaming mine. I swung the crowbar until I got to her. She had blood all over her, and at first I thought it was hers, but it was because I had been hitting these things in the head so hard that it kept spraying on her. None of the zombies made any sound, all you could hear was the movement of their feet on the cement. Some of them gripped at our clothes, some didn't, some tried to bite, some didn't. I was wearing jeans and when I looked down at one point there was a zombie in a baseball cap who wasn't even holding onto me, but he had some of my fabric in his teeth. I shook my leg free and didn't look at him again.

Douglas was kneecapping them, putting them down instead of going for the heads. He would break their knees and their bodies collapsed on the cement. That was the sickest sound, much more vivid than striking the heads, because you could hear the cracking sometimes. They were too uncoordinated to hang on to anything as they fell, and once their knees didn't work, they couldn't get up again.

Athena just pushed them, slapped them, punched them, anything she could. She tried to grab my hand to pull me out of there, but I was in the midst of swinging the crowbar and it tore me free of her. I heard Douglas cry out and the cry came from right beside me. One of the zombies had scratched him good on the neck, not deep enough to be truly awful, but a bad scratch all the same, and Douglas knocked that one to the ground and whipped the crowbar into its side, twice, and the zombie made a coughing noise and grabbed the crowbar. So Douglas kicked it in the head, once, hard.

Going for the knees was more effective, yes, but I found myself not doing that, I found myself looking into their eyes and hitting them in the head, with absolutely all the force I could muster, and I think once that when I missed I came very close to hitting Athena, but I tell myself that I really can't know if she was still that close, though I sensed she was. I think I came very close indeed to striking her. I couldn't control myself. I just knew that if I connected solidly with the heads, it meant I got to keep standing for a couple of more seconds. The lighting in there was pretty dim but I think one of the ones I killed was maybe fifteen years old. I didn't care. None of us did. The last zombie I saw Athena hit, she brought her fist against the side of its head, and it went off balance a bit but it was still standing, so she took a step forward and hit it again, in the same place, and it was fully tumbling over, falling to the floor, its tongue protruding from its stupid mouth, but she went after it, to hit it one more time, just full of rage, full of the wanting to punish it, to make the zombie go down instead of just watching it fall. That led her as far away from me as she had been, so I ran to her, and Douglas had gotten free and gotten there too, and we got away. The door we had come in had that broken knob so Athena just threw her weight against it and we were out. Night was falling, but I could still see the blood on Athena's green T-shirt. Douglas and I had gotten not a drop on us, it was just unarmed Athena, who had never wanted to leave home in the first place; the purplish blood had stained her very badly. Douglas came out third and I stopped for just one second to turn around to see if they were still coming after us, and they were. I flung the crowbar back inside, not caring anymore, and it went about twenty feet and it hit some zombie in the face, and its hands went up slowly to cover itself. That was the last thing I saw. I got in the front seat of the van, Athena in the passenger's seat, Douglas in the back, just like we had come in, and we drove away, and either the zombies came out and took over the grounds and went on from there, or they stayed in the studio, where they belonged.

Donna Rutain, Buckeystown, Maryland

In the zombie movies my brother used to watch with his friends, no matter bad how things got, there were always two or three survivors left, the good guys. And they went into the sunset or whatever, to fight another day. The people who made these things were always careful to have some hope at the end. They would show you machete killings and people getting their eyes gouged out, but as long as the heroes were able to fly off with only one or two people lost, it was considered okay. And it must have worked, because when my brother would force me to watch those movies, I would squirm and cover my face but when the ending came, I was like, "Whew, at least everything's going to be all right."

Ronnie

What would have been interesting before all this is if they'd made a zombie story and in the end the zombies truly won, they finally got rid of all the humans on the earth, so that there couldn't be any band of survivors to go underground to repopulate. All that would be left would be the billions of buildings around the world that people had built before they had all been devoured. There wouldn't be a single sound left, except for the footsteps of the zombies.

Mouses

With the last dying breath of the final hero, all of human history would suddenly vanish, and all the meaning in all the property and structures on the earth would disappear. The dead would wander those structures aimlessly, never starving, never laying down. The seasons would change and they would walk; earthquakes would strike and they would walk. There would be no borders between countries, no differences in cultures or languages. No evolution, no growing intelligence. Every square foot of ground, be it in New York or Paris or Afghanistan, would be just another step for just another foot.

If it were a movie, it could end with three straight silent minutes of zombies and their meaningless shuffling, just the sound of the wind over a protracted montage of the earth finally possessed by a race that didn't even care to own it. Three minutes of montage, and then a black screen. If it were a book, it could end with ten, twenty unbroken pages of images of that sea of biological persistence, covering the land and caring nothing for its past. And when the reader closed the book, a good writer would have made him thought: How peaceful. How perfect. How darkly beautiful in a way that can't be put into words.

Douglas

I remember coming awake that night and having no idea where I was. I was in the passenger's seat with a blanket over me, and I looked through the front window at the trees, and I just didn't understand what had happened. Even when I turned and looked in the back of the van, where Lionel and Athena were lying, I didn't recognize them at first. Then it came to me.

I thought I wouldn't be able to sleep anymore. It had taken me hours just to pass out to begin with. I just looked out the window as the light went from a deep blue to a lighter blue. I read the rules of the park we were in off the sign in front of the van. Sometime during the night, someone had come along and left a styrofoam coffee cup on the hood.

I remember the way their bodies were positioned, Lionel and Athena, lying on top of their sleeping bags in the van. Lionel was face down on his, and his arms were up around his head, blocking his face, as if he were trying to block all light from getting through. Athena must have been even more uncomfortable; her head was on his back, she was holding him, but her right arm was stretched all the way out to his right hand, and she had linked her smallest finger around his.

I stared at the styrofoam coffee cup, thinking it would be good to get something like that in the morning, when Lionel and Athena woke up, and at some point I was asleep again.

I did not dream about zombies. My mind did something quite nice for me. My dream was about me sitting in a Dunkin' Donuts, drinking the kind of hot coffee I'd imagined might be in that cup on the hood of the car. There was nothing more than that. That was more than enough.

And that, I'm pretty sure, was the ending to our story.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Well, almost.

Douglas Widgeon's documentary Song of the Living Dead did eventually air, eighteen months after our awful evening at the studios of WRTH. The eighty minute film featured not only Melissa but four other people under the age of eighteen, including a twelve year old blind boy and a sixteen year old who was put in jail briefly for torturing zombies. The movie ended with the image of Melissa climbing into bed late at night and shutting out her light. Over the end credits, that twelve year old boy stood in a field and played his violin, and I knew right away where Widgeon had gotten that image from: the painted backdrop we'd found at the studio. He left me a message at Porch Lane telling me when the show would be on, and when it was over I called him and talked to him for the first time in a year and a half. He was doing fine, he said, he was in upstate New York and planning a film about the battle of Antietam. I asked him if he ever intended to make anything about the U.S. military's transgressions during the zombie crisis, since he'd had an inside glimpse of it through Ronnie, and he said no, he never intended to make a documentary about that topic, or anything about zombies, ever again. In fact, he hadn't even been able to finish Song of the Living Dead completely. He had hired two people to finish the last interviews for him, and to take care of virtually all of the editing.

About two months after he and I and Athena fought the zombies at RTH, Widgeon had felt himself sinking into a severe depression. He became more and more irritable over minor things, and he always felt angry, and was never sure why. He assumed it was because of what had happened that night, and he went on anti-depressants and stopped working on his movie. It took him about six months to start feeling himself again, and he thought now that he was going to be all right. When he asked me if I was somehow different since then, I honestly told him no, not really. I wanted to be, but I wasn't. I wanted to have nightmares and feel sickened that I had swung that crowbar as many times as I had. The nightmares never came. But then, I had Athena, and Widgeon had no one.

Melissa never saw the documentary; she didn't feel like watching it. Widgeon had called her and told her that it might be kind of awkward to watch it with her folks, because of some things she had said and which he felt he had to include. So she had someone tape it for her, and she thought that she might take a look at it when she was older. Her parents never moved back to the house they'd owned just around the corner from me and Athena. They have stayed in New Brunswick, Ontario since last June, and Melissa goes to school there now. Athena calls her once a month, and tries to get Melissa to focus on her college plans. Things have not gotten any better between her and her parents, not at all. Athena thinks it's Melissa's determination to get away from them as soon as she can that keeps her grounded, keeps her away from partying and boys and cheerleading, keeps her grades nice and even. She has friends. It's all going to be all right.

Ronnie called us from Seattle last December. He was still AWOL, and still had no intention of going back to the army. He was working for a food co-op, and really enjoyed it. He made about six dollars an hour but he lived with six people in a group house, and all of them worked for the co-op as well, and they all knew his story. He asked me if we'd had any unpleasant run-ins with the undead, and I told him Yes, we'd had one, and in five years maybe I'd feel it was all right to talk about it. He'd never found out the ultimate fate of his parents down in Georgia, and he felt ashamed about that. His sister, a dentist in South Carolina, had taken care of the legal details of their deaths, and hadn't been able to find out much of anything either. He was sure they were at rest now, at least, and he tried not to think about it too much.

Mouses writes to Athena and I once every couple of months. I don't think he's coming back to the Lane anytime soon. He appears to be having what Melissa might refer to as "a blast and a half". He has been back and forth across the country twice; he has hitchhiked, ridden a Vespa (and he knows I always wanted one of those), ridden Greyhound, bought a three hundred dollar car that smelled like beets. The postmarks on his letters are always different. He insists he has learned absolutely nothing on his journeys except that one is never too old to make an ass out of himself. He pretty much ran out of money last November, so he sold his house from Montana, taking about two-thirds of what it was actually worth, which was almost nothing to begin with. Athena and I moved the few things he felt like keeping into our place. His next stop, he says, is Canada, then Alaska. After that, he's not sure. He always seems to have plenty of books to keep him occupied, and plenty of people to meet. He's had no recurrence of his heart condition, and he takes his pills like clockwork. At the end of every letter, he tells me not to be envious. There's no point to it. I am envious every single day.

Meanwhile, the dead continue to walk. There simply can't be as many as there are out there, not logically, especially after everything that's been done to make sure the recently departed go absolutely nowhere, but things are still not completely safe. Scientists keep trying to figure out why this has all happened, and their explanations are conflicting and sometimes predictably bizarre. Unfortunately, no one's buying what they're selling. I prefer to idiotically accept the apocalyptic words of a homeless man named Galahad, who told a magazine reporter that this headline-filled, cinematic ghoulishness was craved so badly by the public on a barely subconscious level that we spontaneously brought it on ourselves, taking the other countries of the globe down with us. The recession is still going on, and it's still brutal. In some places, it seems like the citizens of this fine land have decided to turn every available flat surface into a gigantic chalkboard full of graffiti about life after Z-Day II. America is still being viciously criticized for its decisions to send troops to areas of the world where it believes that sudden de-stabilizations due to zombie threats might make things too precarious. No one's made a documentary about it yet. Three people went to jail because of the events in March 2005 in Steelton, which Ronnie saw almost first-hand. Congress is routinely looking into charges that the military invented the entire concept of S.T.G. to scare everyone badly enough to keep the armed forces mobilized and in control and eating heartily, but it's not such a big controversy as one might think. It turned out the zombies really were dangerous after all, so people are willing to overlook a lot of things. Two hundred people have died from their attacks. This might mean as little as one hundred. Who knows.

I finally did find out the identity of the zombie in the housedress, the one I accused of stalking me, the one I saw all those times, hanging around the elementary school and elsewhere. Technology and a few hundred dollars can do anything. Using my photograph, an outfit based in Atlanta called The Search Techs scanned my close-up photo of the woman's face and in only thirty days provided me with the answer to my question. She was Beverly Brierly, and she was my fourth grade teacher at Hillsmere Elementary School in Annapolis, about sixty miles from Gerard Manley Hopkins Elementary School in Buckeystown, where our little gang stayed for a few nights that sunny and cloudless spring. She was just twenty-five or so when I was her student. I hadn't seen her in all that time, but when I saw her face, something had clicked. Memory is an amazing thing.

One day way back when, my folks went in for a parent-teacher conference with Mrs. Brierly. When they came out of it they took me out for a banana split, they were so happy with what she had told them about me. She said she thought that I was one of those few children who could probably be anything I wanted when I grew up, that the future was boundless for me. Even after that day, she said that to me sometimes. Lionel, you are going to do great things, do you know that? she said once. She didn't like it when I goofed off too much, or did less than I was capable of. If only I applied myself, she said, my intelligence would carry me far. I might even be famous. I told her I thought I might want to be a writer. She said: Then you are going to be a writer. Once she rewarded me for doing well on a test by letting me go off into the next room alone during our math session and writing one of my little stories, whatever I felt like. She was proud of me. She believed in me.

That was Mrs. Brierly. I'm here on Porch Lane now, and seven restaurants in town have closed since Z-Day II, but I found some good hours at one that stayed open, and I think about her all the time.

*

All the time.

I'm writing this last part from 188 Porch Lane, in the bedroom of the house I share with Athena, who's lying asleep after teaching a class at the community center where in return for several hours a week of instructing people in basic painting techniques, she's provided a studio of her own. Sometimes she's there working all day and teaching all night and doesn't get home till eleven or so. But we have weekends together still for another month or so, and then I have to start working Saturdays and just a few hours on Sundays, so we'll figure something out. She went for months without producing a single painting, and when she finally got back into it, she sold the first one she did, to a fellow instructor. So she's just as good as she always was. The money trickles in, there's our usual jokey talk about getting married this year, and we do all right. We certainly never spend anything. We share the car and I usually walk to work. It keeps me in shape. Athena spends a little on canvases and oils, which clutter our bedroom here in a very pleasant way.

A couple of years ago, I went down to the pharmacy for some cough medicine and I wound up also buying a five subject notebook, a big thick blue deal which I thought I'd use for random notes and jottings. I always tell people that I want to keep track of words I want to look up in the dictionary, and I want to have a little list of the books I want to read and the movies I want to watch, and small paragraphs about impractical ideas to make money, and so forth. And for a long time, I used the front of the notebook just for that.

Sometimes I would get frustrated by something I saw on the news and I would turn to the middle section of the notebook and scrawl a few words down about it. Athena thought it was a good thing, so I kept doing it. I suppose it gave me an outlet for my irritating opinions, so she wouldn't have to listen to them so much. Once in a while I would see a severely handicapped person on the street or hear about some tragedy that didn't make any sense, and some words about these things went into the book as well. More and more recently, I would be reacting to some decision this country had made regarding throwing its weight around overseas, or its treatment of people I considered most in need of help, who weren't getting much of it, or America's embrace of violence in all its seemingly mild forms, from all the killing on TV shows to the fact that every movie poster seemed to be suggesting its hero was the definition of cool because he was wielding two guns against three bad guys, to the only half-joking opinions of normally decent people that we just nuke faraway places that cause us headaches. Most of what I wrote was indecipherable nonsense, gut reactions to issues I didn't really understand. But I felt what I felt, and I didn't have much control over it.

Then in December of last year, there was a tragedy that struck Athena and I, and I found myself writing in the last section of the notebook: a long story to take my mind off things, something ridiculous and implausible. It was so far-fetched it actually seemed to help a little, but soon I began to see that what I was writing about wasn't some horror tale that could never happen. I was writing about myself. When I realized this, I kept going anyway. The result was what I had really been trying to say in the first parts of the notebook, when I thought I was expressing all my fears about an America I would live in forever but which seemed to me to be growing more Darwinian and hardhearted by the year. The picture was both bigger and smaller than that, though. When all was said and done, my story was mostly about a confused thirty-two year old man who had misplaced the joy of living in a world where such beauty co-existed with such horror.

So maybe there never were any zombies, no Z-Day I or II, no controversial acts of military brutality, no travels across a couple of states with a group of my friends and the professional artist Athena Carew. Not that these people aren't real. They all are, everyone who came with Athena and I in that van, Mouses, Ronnie, Douglas Widgeon, and Melissa, friends or acquaintances or maybe even just people we met very briefly once and exchanged no more than a few words with. But the things they did and said, maybe they all came from the imagination of a man who hasn't written a story since he was eleven years old, and doesn't really understand too many of the rules of plausibility and linear plot, and had to resort to telling a tale of flesh-hungry zombies to relate his saddest fears about a world where some poisoned food would suddenly rip the life away from a seventeen year old friend of Athena's, who lived around the corner from us and daydreamed of getting away from her parents and of becoming an actress or working in fashion, and going with us if we went to Amsterdam one summer.

Melissa Lansford died painfully in December of 2002, a victim of random chance and gross human negligence, a death that seemed designed to shock its witnesses into a hideous, revolted silence. Death took her in a particularly harsh, cowardly, uneducational way, and shortly afterward, out came my tale of zombies overrunning the planet, written in longhand across one hundred and seven pages. I would have written it eventually, I suppose. It was my way of challenging the universe to a contest of savagery. I wanted to write about a darkness so absurd that it would make darkness seem almost funny. It didn't work out for me. It hasn't made anything go away. Even in fiction, I couldn't quite keep us all together, but for a while, at least, I really did feel like I was driving that van, and we were all free of everything. I knew exactly what it would be like to cruise along the smooth blacktop of Buckeystown Pike with the driver's side window rolled down and my friends passing around a map. It was like being told I would be young for a hundred years.

Now Athena is sleeping a few feet away from me. She has been, and remains, my last line of defense against everything I imagine which lies outside the window to my left: disease, violence, failure, senseless destruction, murder, intolerance. Here, she has created a paradise for me. I've done what I can for her, though it can never be enough. She is smarter than I am, more successful than I feel I can ever be, more patient, more kind. She is so perfect in my eyes, it hurts sometimes just to leave to go to work. One step outside the door of 188 Porch Lane, and I am Lionel the waiter and the college dropout. To her, in our four room house, I am somehow still Lionel the Great. Her love for me is mysterious and deep. Our friend Mouses once told me so in a letter after he had a stroke, a letter I've reproduced, not quite verbatim, in this story.

In a few minutes I'll curl up beside her and say a little silent prayer. Help me be strong, Athena, I'll say. My country is not as pure as I had always believed it to me, and I'm not either, and phantoms are everywhere. There are sunsets and oceans and images of you brushing your hair on our porch swing, and there are gunshots and freak accidents and people to whom cruelty is only a means to an end they believe is just. The images flash by me, too many to be counted, alternating between good and evil, and it seems impossible it can all exist so close to each other, on the same earth. I believe you love me and always will, and I believe a boy's beautifully played violin could summon hungry zombies from over the horizon, and that music could come from a dead woman's throat. Yes, darkness and light are so close together, so relentlessly at war, that this can all be. I have written it down in permanent pen. Nightmares dreamed in a field of perfect May grass, a bridesmaid fixed in a rifle sight: words in a notebook you don't ever need to understand, which I will keep secretly for both of us, for as long as you stand beside me.


Lionel Gathers
State College, Pennsylvania
June 19, 2003